Classic, classical, and classicism explained

A conversation with Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:10] We’re in the Metropolitan Museum, in the galleries devoted to ancient Greek and Roman art. We wanted to talk about the difference between what is classical, what is classicism, and what is classic.

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:16] When I think of the term classic, I think of things like classic cars or classic rock. I think often I associate things that are classic with being wonderful examples of a certain era.

Dr. Zucker: [0:30] Art historians do use the term “classic.” For example, we might think about the Classic Maya Period.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:34] When we use the term “classic” in reference to certain periods in Mesoamerican history, it’s a reference to periods that are perceived by modern scholars as being the art that is considered to be among the best.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:49] And art historians should know better. We study history, and we know that fashions in what is considered important, even in the history of art, changes over time. Let’s move on to classical.

[0:59] That’s usually a reference to ancient Greek and Roman culture, this period that lasted over a thousand years. A period in which much of the Mediterranean was dominated by first the Greeks and then the Romans.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:10] Here we are in the court showing lots of examples of Greco-Roman sculpture that would be considered classical. More specifically, people talk about the Classical Period, which is a specific time period in ancient Greek art. These are divisions that are made by art historians in much later time periods.

Dr. Zucker: [1:34] This Aphrodite is such an exemplar of what comes to mind when we think of the classical. It’s clearly informed by careful observation of the human body, although idealized, made better. So although this comes out of a period that we would specifically refer to as the late Classical in ancient Greece, it is also part of this larger, sweeping period that we call the classical, which is a reference to ancient Greece and ancient Rome.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:00] So if we were looking at the Renaissance era, we could think about Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” where Venus is modeled on sculptures very similar to this Aphrodite sculpture that we’re looking at. We might refer to that looking back to ancient Greco-Roman culture as looking back to classical culture.

Dr. Zucker: [2:12] Since its revival in the Italian Renaissance, an interest in classicism has never entirely been lost. Two events collided in the 18th century to bring forth what we call Neoclassicism. There was the rediscovery of the city of Pompeii, sparking this renewed interest in ancient Roman culture.

[2:33] But at the same time, there was an intellectual movement that was taking place, which we call the Enlightenment, which would revive the ancient Greek idea of democracy.

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:39] This is when you think of buildings like the White House, Monticello. These are all being constructed thinking about the Greco-Roman world. This is also the time when you have the origins of the discipline of art history. Johann Winkelmann is interested in ancient Greek and Roman art, and he’s creating these stylistic categories like the Classical period.

[3:06] Some of those value judgments that we use today, for instance, feeling that the classical era has the most sophisticated, advanced, naturalistic art, comes from that time period.

Dr. Zucker: [3:18] That idea that there is a static perfection of the past that we try to get back to came into conflict in the 19th century with ideas of industrial progress. Were the Greeks and Romans this epitome, this perfection that we can only hope to reachieve? Or, in fact, is our society moving forward? In the 19th and 20th and 21st centuries, we’ve been grappling with that conflict.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:37] When you have people looking to the ancient Greek and Roman past, they were reimagining it as this pure white marble. The great irony is that much of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture was brightly painted.

[3:55] We can still see traces on many different sculptures, although for those where you don’t see traces, sometimes it was because sculptures were later bleached to remove the traces of color.

Dr. Zucker: [4:06] The 18th and 19th centuries, and even early 20th century, were imposing their aesthetics on these ancient objects. Making them conform to their idea of what they should have looked like, even though we now know that was wrong.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:14] How different these periods of revival would have been if only people had been more aware of the brightly colored art and architecture of the ancient Greek and Roman past.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Classic, classical, and classicism explained," in Smarthistory, April 5, 2022, accessed June 14, 2024,